A few years ago, for my graduate school thesis, I interviewed novelists David Gates, Jonathan Lethem, and Lynne Tillman about how their reading informs their writing. I was motivated the advice – attributed, though I have no idea if this is true or not, to Jonathan Ames – that a first time novelist should select a successful novel that he loves, then rip off the structure so as to be able to focus on character and language without having to worry about story. Rumor had it, Ames had done this with P.G. Wodehouse.
Whatever the veracity of this anecdote, I took it to heart. Through most of my graduate school writing life, The Catcher in the Rye and The Sun Also Rises sat on my desk, and whenever I confronted a problem in my novel-in-progress, be it a sentence or turn of the plot, I’d flip one or both of them open and try to crib a solution. Seeing as I never completed my book, I’m not sure I can recommend this strategy. It did, however, lead me to wonder how other novelists allowed their reading to, or tried to prevent it from, influencing or guiding their writing; hence the interviews.
The authors I talked to presented a fantastic study, as each mine very different territory in their work.
David Gates, whose wonderful debut novel Jernigan was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, explores mostly male antiheroes, malcontents with wicked senses of humor who are somehow at odds with the life they find themselves leading.
Jonathan Lethem, particularly in his novels since The National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Motherless Brooklyn, throws literary realism, genre tropes, and a sense of the fantastic into a blender, binding it all together with a smart, culturally savvy tone. His essay “The Ecstasy of Influence” (which later gave title to a collection of his nonfiction work) is a bravura piece of theory that both proves and demonstrates – or more aptly, proves by demonstrating – how all art is indebted to what came before it, an idea he touched upon in our discussion.
Lynne Tillman, author of the profound American Genius, A Comedy, writes voice driven stories about eccentric, brilliant people who hide their insecurities behind facts and observations, just as she hides puzzle pieces of narrative amid breathlessly long sentences that seem ripped straight from the minds of her protagonists.
All three put to page some of the best sentences found in contemporary literature, and infuse their work with sharp humor, which perhaps explains why I love their books so deeply. The David Gates interview posted on The Iowa Review Online last September, the same month the Jonathan Lethem interview went up on AGNI Online. You can find both of them by following the links. I’m happy to announce that the Lynne Tillman interview, refreshed to address her latest short story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, will be featured in issue 11 of Slice Magazine, out later this year.